Given recent events, I thought maybe I should tell you about what happened last time I did a cat delivery with Hank Schmitt. This was seven years ago, in January 2007, and the short version of the story is that I ended up getting arrested. The boat–a brand new Scape 39 Sport Cruiser built in Cape Town, South Africa–belonged to a man named Wayne. He had hired Hank to skipper the delivery all the way across the South Atlantic to Grenada and was willing to pay airfare for one extra crew member to fly into Cape Town, which is where I came in.
Hank and I crawled off the plane, nearly jet-lagged to death, to be greeted by Wayne and a litany of his woes: 1) the boat, already over six weeks late, was not finished yet; 2) Wayne’s wife, who had come to attend the launching and sea-trials, had broken her leg and had to fly home again; and 3) the apartment they were renting had just been destroyed in a fire.
During the next week, while we impatiently twiddled our thumbs waiting for the builder to give us the boat, this list only grew longer.
Our Scape 39, Doubletime, on the left, lying on a dock below Table Mountain
First the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) questioned whether Hank was competent to skipper a yacht delivery across the South Atlantic and hinted they might not let us leave. After several ineffectual encounters with a lesser officer, we were at last granted an audience with the agency’s director. He made it clear he had no respect at all for Hank’s U.S. Coast Guard license and after some discussion finally admitted there was no other license or certificate, other than one issued by his agency, that he would ever consider valid. In the end, however, after putting the fear of God in us, he cheerfully granted us permission to sail anyway.
The immigration office, meanwhile, announced that they couldn’t let Wayne leave the country, as he no longer had permission to be in it. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to renew his visa, which had expired several weeks earlier. Again we had several bizarre conversations with government officials, who decided to levy a huge fine of several thousand dollars, but ruled that Wayne only had to pay it if and when he ever returned to South Africa.
A mad scramble to finish the boat so we can sail away on it
Finally one morning, after several Groundhog Days in which tomorrow was supposed to be the day we left but never was, we actually provisioned the boat, even as the builders were still rushing around completing several last-minute jobs. Not long afterwards we at last pushed them all off on to the dock and headed for open water.
And yes, of course, things immediately started to break. We roared out of Table Bay on a fast reach, tore past Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela had once been imprisoned), and then heard a huge THWACK of a noise underneath the leeward hull. Just behind us we saw broken bits of a daggerboard floating in the water. There followed a mad scramble as we checked for ancillary damage. But the daggerboard case, the saildrive, the rudder and steering all seemed OK. A pregnant pause then as Hank and I looked to Wayne, but for him now there could be no turning back. No way was he going to pay that huge immigration fine just so we could get a new daggerboard.
Wayne bids farewell to South Africa
This might seem crazy, but in fact the South Atlantic is a very calm and boring ocean. It suffers no tropical storms, normally contains no part of the greater Atlantic’s inter-tropical convergence zone, and carries very little commercial traffic. Once we were well away from Cape Town we expected nothing but mild tailwinds, empty water, and fair current all the way to Brazil, and we reckoned we could handle all that just fine with our one remaining daggerboard.
We did have other technical problems. The starboard engine made strange vibrations and developed a large oil leak. The fresh-water system also developed a large and mysterious leak, such that we lost a third of our supply in a single day and had no idea where it had gone. Also, quite suddenly, six days out of Cape Town, about 600 miles from the nearest land, the steering failed completely.
This, we quickly figured out, was because the master link in the steering wheel’s drive chain had fallen apart. Most of the link was easily recovered, but the most important bit, the little clip that held it together, was nowhere to be found. Finally, I remembered a mysterious little piece of metal we’d found on the cockpit sole the day before we left Cape Town. Fortunately, Wayne had saved this and, indeed, it proved to be the missing clip. We could only marvel that it took over 1,000 miles of sailing for the master link to at last work loose and fall apart without it.
Interior of the starboard hull. The boat had limited living space, and we had to store many of our provisions in boxes in the starboard head, right next to the tiny galley
Wayne shaves on deck. The only mirror we had onboard was the extracted hard drive from a dead computer
Our fresh-water problem, meanwhile, was finally solved when we took an interest in bathing and found a huge leak in the transom shower installation at the back of the starboard hull. Each time the fresh-water lines were pressurized, it turned out scads of water had been flowing straight overboard through an aft locker drain. This at least was very easy to fix, though we had no such luck with the starboard engine’s oil leak. Fortunately, of course, we did have a spare engine in the port hull.
Though the South Atlantic was boring, the clouds drifting over it were remarkably dramatic. I have always enjoyed watching clouds at sea, as it feels like such a privilege, being able to see the world as it truly is, a vast realm of water and vapor and light co-mingled in infinite variations. But these clouds were something else…
They were utterly fantastic, like cathedrals of vapor in the sky. I spent part of each day trying to take pictures of them, but this was inherently frustrating, like trying to photograph dreams.
If nothing else it helped deconstruct the ego. These clouds, so ephemeral, were nothing abstract; they were real, the only reality. We ourselves were as nothing, less than nothing, mere specks of finite life adrift on a tiny raft, the only solid object in an endless flux of liquid and gas.
Nine days out of Cape Town Wayne showed us his chart of St. Helena. This proved to be a tourist map of Ascension Island, 700 miles to the northwest, that had been copied off the Internet. Wayne explained it looked similar to a map he’d once seen of St. Helena, so he thought it might prove useful.
The following morning we approached the island through a series of beautiful rainbow-studded squalls. The coast was composed entirely of very high corrugated cliffs, utterly barren and desolate, with no evidence of habitation or even foliage.
Finally, however, we came to a port, on the island’s northwest side. This was Jamestown, a thin scar of dwellings and greenery that runs down to the sea through a deep ravine. Before it lay an open roadstead with a handful of fishing boats, three yachts, and an enormous orange LNG tanker flying a Norwegian flag. This, we soon learned, was the world’s largest “energy ship,” which had just been launched and was laying here awaiting her first assignment.
Approaching the anchorage at Jamestown
The harbor launch, with Doubletime and the world’s largest energy ship in the background
Jamestown as seen from the top of Jacob’s Ladder, a 699-step stairway that leads up the face of a cliff overlooking town
St. Helena, with a population of about 3,000 souls, is one of the most isolated communities on earth. There is no airfield, though the British government is constantly promising to build one
We spent only 28 hours on St. Helena. Landing late on a Sunday afternoon at the town dock, which was nothing but a concrete wall with ropes overhead for swinging ashore on, we found all government and financial offices were closed. On wandering inland, however, we were greeted effusively by everyone we met and were immediately offered all the food and drink we wanted on credit. Next morning, having abused our credit as best we could, we cleared both in and out with customs and immigration, changed money and paid our debts, then re-provisioned the boat.
That afternoon Hank and I took a truck ride with Reggie, father of Craig, who ran the launch that serviced the anchorage. Despite the coast’s very barren appearance, the island’s interior, we found, was a veritable garden. The road, lined with thorn trees and gorgeous purple flowers, wound through small forests of cedar and eucalyptus, stands of tall Norfolk pines, enormous clumps of wild flax, and steep cow pastures.
The lush interior
Yes, there is such a place as Fairyland, and you should not litter there
What St. Helena is most famous for, of course, is Longwood House, where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled after being defeated at Waterloo in 1815. A sprawling, low-slung affair, the house is surrounded by acres of flower beds, laid out so that the deposed emperor could wander through them without being seen from the road.
After he died in 1821, Bonaparte was buried nearby in a valley of willow trees. Hank and I walked down to the now empty tomb (the emperor’s remains having been removed to Les Invalides in Paris in 1840) and communed with its absent spirit.
Hank takes a break
Afterwards, on the ride back into town, Reggie shared with us a great deal of salacious gossip concerning the French consul, who had been sent to oversee both the house and the empty crypt.
Low on Water
Sailing west from St. Helena, we fell to arguing over our sail configuration. In planning the trip we’d hoped the South Atlantic’s southeast tradewinds would blow at least as hard as the northeast trades in the North Atlantic. But we were crossing the South Atlantic in January, at the height of the southern summer (something one would normally not do in the north, for fear of meeting tropical storms), so the trades in fact proved much weaker. To make the most of what we had, Hank and I favored flying both the main and the asymmetric spinnaker while tacking downwind on a series of broad reaches. Wayne, meanwhile, wanted to fly the spinnaker alone at much deeper angles. The latter tactic, in fact, is generally favored by the crews who deliver fat charter cats to the West Indies. We were told they often don’t even bother to bend on their mainsails, but instead make the entire passage from Cape Town under genoa alone.
Wayne at the helm, with main and A-sail flying
In the end we did a bit of both and were never sailing as fast as we hoped. We did see many more squalls passing through. At first they were small and moderate, with easterly winds briefly spiking only as high as 15 knots. But then, 11 days out of St. Helena, we got hit one afternoon by a huge line squall packing southerly gusts as high as 28 knots. It also brought a great deluge of rain, for which we were extremely grateful. Wayne had been too cheap to buy bottled water in St. Helena, and it turned out the water we’d taken aboard from the public tap was mostly foul. We’d long ago run out of sweet water to drink and were now down to rations of one can of soda a day each.
“We’re rich!” we shrieked gleefully as we caught cool delicious rainwater off the double-reefed mainsail. In all, we filled five 2-liter jugs in less than 40 minutes.
We arrived at Fortaleza, on the northeast coast of Brazil, just two days later, early on a Sunday morning. First we spotted a low wall of high-rise buildings on the horizon, then a line of rolling dunes and a bright stripe of beach to the east. Then, emerging at last from the grey haze, dark hills in the distance behind the city.
Arriving in Fortaleza
And then finally, all around us, the silhouettes of rafts. Some were just that–mere slabs of wood with piles of cargo and people aboard, powered by long sculling oars. But many were sailing vessels. They flew dark lateen sails on long, elegantly curved spars and looked very much like one-winged butterflies dancing gracefully across the surface of the water.
Because of the week we lost in Cape Town and our slower than expected passage times, I had to leave the boat in Fortaleza. We spent most of that Sunday re-provisioning, then the very next morning Hank and Wayne cast off and headed north toward Grenada without me. Relying on the advice of South African delivery skippers who routinely make this trip, they never formally checked in or out, as the harbormaster running the docks at the Marina Park Hotel was happy to turn a blind eye to such comings and goings if greased with a bottle of booze.
Doubletime lies side to the dock at the Marina Park Hotel
In fact, however, Americans do need visas to enter Brazil, and I didn’t have one. The federal police were very upset with me when I presented myself at their office on Monday afternoon seeking permission to enter the country so I could leave the next morning on a plane. Fortunately, I had contacted my wife by sat-phone before we landed, and she had purchased me a plane ticket and had discussed my situation with the U.S. embassy in Brasilia. As it was, however, I was detained for several hours before the police finally found someone who’d been in touch with the embassy.
After some pleading and groveling, I was at last issued a 24-hour “emergency visa” and was allowed to leave without paying a fine. The cop who busted me was pretty upset about this, but the higher-ups in his office were inclined to be magnanimous. Later I learned that if I had instead simply tried to board the plane home without first clearing in, as I first planned to do, I most likely would have been detained for a week or more.
FOR THE RECORD, the complete list of problems we had on this trip (leaving aside my legal woes) ran as follows:
1 broken daggerboard
1 bad oil leak, starboard engine
1 leaking fresh-water system
1 busted steering system
1 chafed halyard in mast
1 broken halyard sheave at masthead
1 leaking stanchion base
1 non-functional CD player
1 non-functional AC inverter
1 cleat pulled out of the deck